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Tornado Study: Are We Due for a Real Life 'Into the Storm'?

Aug 07, 2014 11:29 AM EDT
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Experts have found new evidence that supports the theory that the intensity of tornadoes in the United States will continue to heighten as climate patterns around the globe change.

Sure, things won't be nearly as bad as Into the Storm, Hollywood's latest take on the apocalyptic side of climate change consequences, but Professor James Elsner says that we will likely be very surprised by the intensity of future storms.

According to a study conducted by Elsner and published in the journal Climate Dynamics, atmospheric churning will mean fewer cyclones happening annually, but when they do touch down, they are more likely to assemble en masse. Instead of up to two storms in any one area, there might be three or four tearing through a region.

"We may be less threatened by tornadoes on a day-to-day basis, but when they do come, they come like there's no tomorrow," Elsner said in a statement.

And in a way, that is just like Into the Storm. The movie, which has not been particularly popular among critics, hits theaters tomorrow, and depicts the same kind of scenario that Elsner is talking about. The key difference? While more tornadoes are likely to touch down at once in small towns in the future, they won't be frequently dragging any tractor trailers into the sky.

Tornadoes actually don't pull as much up as you would think. Instead, intense cyclical winds tend to mangle and throw weight around, which is why some storm chaser videos depict cars and busses being rolled by vertical winds.

However, given enough wind speeds and the right angle for the tornado's cone, anything can be lifted. According to the NOAA, an EF5 tornado can create wind speeds well past 200 mph at its center. An EF4 tornado in Tuscaloosa-Birmingham, Alabama with 190-mph winds is thought to have hurled a train car weighing 71,600 pounds about 130 yards, back in 2011, according to witnesses.

It's important to note that high EF-scale storms are rare, with most tornadoes floating around the EF1 range. However, even those can cause serious damage.

"I think it's important for forecasters and the public to know this," Elsner said of his study. "It's a matter of making sure the public is aware that if there is a higher risk of a storm, there may actually be multiple storms in a day."

Want some good news to go with the bad? The same study found that the territory affected by tornadoes has not grown, so if you've never seen a twister up close yet, you likely won't ever; unless, of course, you go looking.

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